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Philly’s Ukrainians on the Trump impeachment hearings: ‘Suddenly everybody knows about Ukraine’

For Ukrainians in the Philadelphia region, testimony in the Trump impeachment inquiry has been powerful, resonant, and at times jarring.

Liliya Koval serves varenyky, or pierogis, to waiting students inside the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in Jenkintown on Saturday.
Liliya Koval serves varenyky, or pierogis, to waiting students inside the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in Jenkintown on Saturday.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Mark Tarnawsky followed the Trump impeachment hearings on TV this month, and he came to a firm conclusion: It’s nice to finally hear people correctly pronounce the name of his ancestral homeland’s capital city.

As many viewers learned, Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, is spoken as “Keev,” not “Kee-ev.”

“Is it particularly pleasant to have Ukraine in the news in this context?” asked Tarnawsky, director of the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in Jenkintown. “Not really. The positive side is more people in the United States are now aware that Ukraine exists.”

The Black Sea nation of 44 million people, a land roughly the size of Texas, has been thrust into a central role in the House impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump. For Ukrainians in the Philadelphia region — more than 67,000 live here — the testimony and revelations are powerful, resonant, and at times jarring.

Vera Andryczyk, 77, a community activist whose husband, Roman, is a retired U.S. Army colonel, was stunned when Republicans questioned the loyalty of a military witness — Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated Iraq war veteran, Purple Heart recipient, and American citizen, who came to the U.S. as a child refugee from Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union.

“It was shocking, and intimidating,” Andryczyk said, breaking into tears. “I never thought that would happen here. I work on campaigns for the GOP. To have your loyalty questioned? It’s beneath the dignity ... .”

Democrats have been building a case that Trump abused his power by holding up a coveted White House visit and military aid approved by Congress while pushing for Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, his main political rival, and his son Hunter. Trump has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and Republicans in Congress have dismissed the impeachment inquiry as illegitimate, even as a growing number of witnesses have bolstered the allegations.

Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, and who listened in on Trump’s now infamous call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as part of his normal responsibilities, testified that it was “improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent.”

Trump and his defenders have tried to shift the focus to a discredited conspiracy theory that says Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election to hurt Trump.

» READ MORE: Democrats made their case for Trump’s impeachment. Can it cut through the fog of conspiracy theories?

“All of a sudden, here we are, under the microscope,” said Andryczyk, of West Norriton Township. “Ukraine is not just another country asking for a handout. Ukraine is a strategic partner of the United States, and the independence of Ukraine is an integral part of stability in Europe.”

Ukrainians immigrated to the United States in distinct waves, starting about 1870, when poor farmers, many of them former slaves of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, were drawn here by the promise of paying jobs. About 240,000 settled in eastern farmlands or the anthracite coal-mining towns of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

In the early 1900s, as many as 250,000 more Ukrainians arrived, working for steel, glass, and rail manufacturers in such big industrial cities as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit. Ukrainian immigration paused at the start of World War I, and all but stopped after Congress set limits on migrants.

The Nazis seized virtually all of Ukraine in their 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. Initially, the Germans were greeted as liberators, allies for Ukrainian independence.

Instead, the Nazis began the mass killing of Ukrainian Jews, at times aided by local auxiliary forces. At the end of the war, tens of thousands of displaced Ukrainians came to the U.S., helped by Ukrainian American organizations that the newcomers revived and expanded.

The Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union cut off new immigration for four decades, ending only with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and official Ukrainian independence in 1991.

Today, about a million Ukrainians live in the U.S. Locally, about 52,000 people of Ukrainian ancestry and an additional 15,000 Ukrainian immigrants make their homes in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburban and South Jersey counties.

Most Americans, if they know anything about Ukraine, recognize it as the homeland of figure skater Oksana Baiul, “the swan of Odessa,” who won gold at the 1994 Olympics in Norway.

Ukrainian Americans here and elsewhere battle the misconception that they are Russians, Poles, or Hungarians, because Ukraine was occupied by those nations at different times.

“There’s a delicious irony here that suddenly everybody knows about Ukraine,” said Roman Petyk, 68, chairman of the board of the Ukrainian Selfreliance Federal Credit Union.

Petyk, of Chester Springs, was born in the United States to immigrant parents — he didn’t speak a word of English until he was 6. As a lawyer, planner, and scholar, he has helped build a rich local cultural life in which Ukrainian identity is passed on and treasured.

The Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in Jenkintown serves as a hub for the regional community, with a Ukrainian-language day care, a heritage school, a library, women’s league, seniors’ association, and three choirs, all means of maintaining the culture.

» READ MORE: The United States is becoming more diverse — and quickly, in certain places

“It’s something that’s part of you,” said executive director Tarnawsky. “Your choice is to reject it, and assimilate, or try to nurture it as best you can.”

He doesn’t bring up impeachment in conversations at the center.

“There’s a wide variety of opinions within our community,” Tarnawsky said. “I’m certainly not interested in getting into arguments with people.”

He hopes that, whenever and however the impeachment process ends, Ukraine’s reputation isn’t harmed.

Like his wife, Roman Andryczyk, 79, has been closely following the impeachment proceedings in newspapers and on television, and through the Ukrainian press and radio. They worry impeachment will hurt the bipartisan congressional support for Ukraine that took so long to build.

“Ukraine is in the spotlight, whether it wants to be or not,” he said. “We wonder what consequences are going to happen.”

Staff writer John Duchneskie contributed to this article.